What Do We Do Now About Racism?

The call came early in the morning from a white, male school leader. He said his heart was heavy over the conditions in the country. He had read the headlines about yet another black man whose life was taken unjustly. He remarked on the protests and violence that has made the nation take notice of racial inequality, again. He was moved to ask, “What do we do?” “How do we do we help?”  
A text came from a socially aware white woman who serves on the board of an independent school. She wrote: “My white friends are paying attention, but we don’t know what to do.”
The death of George Floyd has placed a renewed focus on a fundamental issue—the inequality that has plagued our nation for centuries. The question “What do we do?” is symptomatic of a deeper problem.
How can we still not know what to do?
As DEI consultants, we have worked with school leaders across the United States and aboard as they engage with their communities in their equity work. As a result, we are convinced that independent schools are a microcosm of society and in a unique position to answer the question about what to do. Now’s the time to lean into the discomfort.

Meeting the Moment 

Global outrage is not merely about holding police accountable. The outrage is about inequities. There’s injustice in the way police treat people of color and how precious resources such as health care and housing are distributed. And more recently, there’s a disproportionate rate of illness and death related to COVID-19 in the black community.
Independent schools are certainly not immune to issues of inequality. Our schools and organizations have taken anti-bias training, hired diversity coordinators, and created diversity councils. We have mentioned diversity in our mission statements and have full equity statements, but it has done little to change minds.
We are amid a global pandemic, and for many schools, equity work has taken a back seat to health and safety to prepare for the reentry process. Many argue that safety takes precedence, as they cut back on budget items that would support equity work. But that argument doesn’t hold water for those who experience what happens when equity doesn’t exist.
We contend that racial equity work is about safety—making sure that everyone feels both physically and emotionally safe. It means helping our students and faculty understand their part in perpetuating a system of injustice or supporting the policies that have structured the kind of racism and inequitable practices that continue to plague our society. It’s about getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations about race, ethnicity and culture, inviting constituent groups—such as students, families and faculty—to share their authentic perspectives.
It is time to name racism and to not be afraid to use the terminology. It is also time to place a laser focus on the issues of racial equity at our schools. Now is the time to have the powerful and sometimes painful conversations that will bring about real change. We need to seize this time to lay bare the structural concerns––such as the disproportionate number of disciplinary referrals for black and brown children relative to their white peers, and the sense of belonging denied to many students who see themselves as interlopers––and demonstrate more than a rhetorical commitment to examining how race and representation affect children and alter policies, practices, and exclusionary norms. Only then can we guarantee every child’s success and sense of connectedness within the independent school environment.

A Framework for Change

In 2007, and again in 2020, Norma L. Day-Vines and her colleagues developed the Continuum of Broaching Behavior framework, which helps schools consider their orientations toward broaching or engaging in difficult conversations about the way that issues of race and representation impact policies practices and norms within school settings. The continuum contains four broaching orientations: Avoidant, Continuing/Incongruent, Integrated/Congruent, and Infusing.
Schools operating within the Avoidant category ignore and/or minimize racialized issues for fear that addressing such topics will spark volatile debate, expose biases, polarize the school community, and lead to accusations of racism. The consequence of suppressing racialized concerns may be that issues spiral out of control unnecessarily because they were not dealt with when they were still manageable.
As schools advance along the continuum, they engage in the Continuing/Incongruent responses by responding awkwardly or inappropriately to racialized incidents. For instance, in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, the school may assert, “all lives matter,” not recognizing that this statement dismisses the continued dehumanization that far too many Black and Brown children experience repeatedly. Schools responding from an Integrated/Congruent stance, demonstrate an openness to addressing issues related to race, ethnicity, and culture. Such schools may respond by engaging in thoughtful reflection before issuing a public statement and consider their institutional commitment to social justice, as well as the consequences of rendering responses that may be nonfacilitative. Ultimately, they would generate a response that recognizes the historical legacy of racism and discrimination in the U.S., the need to stand in solidarity with Black and Brown students, and the school’s commitment to anti-racist practice.
Schools operating at the Infusing category possess the tools and resources to engage racial, ethnic, and cultural issues directly and effectively. In addition to reiterating the school’s commitment to anti-racist practice, like the Integrated/Congruent schools, Infusing schools would examine their policies and practices to make sure they do not deliberately or inadvertently penalize students from marginalized groups. For instance, they may have systematic ongoing training and support for faculty to engage in anti-racist dialogue and education, begin the process of unlearning racism, look at structures within the school that disadvantage students, review data (e.g., school level data that tracks advanced course taking patterns, discipline practices, by race and class), enlist constituent groups such as parents and students to share their perceptions of the school climate, examine curriculum to make sure it is bias-free, review policies to make sure they do not penalize students from marginalized groups unfairly.
We believe that this work cannot be accomplished by single-session professional development workshops, feel-good book readings, or through the hiring of diversity officers who have limited support or authority. The implementation of ongoing, systematic trainings (e.g. cultural competence, anti-bias, anti-racism) in which members of the school community develop the ability to broach difficult conversations and set up more equitable school practices rests heavily on doing internal work around self-awareness that bring into focus one’s attitudes, biases, and assumptions, engage in introspective reflection on both an individual and organizational level, and most importantly, the will to transform schools.
At some point, the noise surrounding the heinous killing of George Floyd will subside, we’ll have a medical response to COVID-19, and the unrest will cease. Everyone will go back home and life will resume. But, will there be real, substantive change? Will schools have the necessary tools to manage the change required? That will depend on you.
Norma Day-Vines

Norma Day-Vines is the associate dean for faculty development in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

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Valaida Wise

Valaida Wise is the principal DEI consultant with Dr. Valaida Wise Consulting and holds a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University.